JACKSONVILLE — He may be an All-Pro when it comes to blocking out the noise, but Blake Bortles is not tone-deaf. As the universally maligned quarterback — for now, at least — of a Jacksonville Jaguars team best known for a playmaking defense and a power running attack, Bortles knows his role is to keep taking hits, on and off the field, and he’s not running away from his fate.
"I’m totally at peace with that," Bortles told NFL.com in an interview last week, four days before he was benched in the second half of a 20-7 home defeat to the Houston Texans, only to be reinstalled as the starter for Sunday’s showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles at Wembley Stadium in London. "I totally understand that I’m like the scapegoat for this team. When we play good, ‘The defense played well, the running back did good, the receivers made great plays.’ And when we play bad, ‘Blake Bortles is the worst quarterback on the face of the planet.’
"And I get it. Obviously, that’s not what I would have chosen for myself. And I’m sure it’ll never stop. But I couldn’t care less. I just want to win football games with this team."
Bortles, the fifth-year passer who has been the Jaguars’ starter since early in his rookie season, won 12 times last season, including a pair of playoff contests, before being edged by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. That 24-20 defeat at Gillette Stadium last January featured an impressive performance by Bortles, who was even better against the Pats in Week 2 of this season, outdueling the great Tom Brady in a 31-20 Jacksonville triumph.
The Jags (3-4), however, are currently mired in a three-game losing streak, adding significance to Sunday’s game against the similarly struggling defending Super Bowl champs. While the Eagles (3-4) are all in organizationally with third-year quarterback Carson Wentz, an MVP candidate before tearing his ACL last December, Bortles spent last Monday morning not knowing whether he or backup Cody Kessler would get the call in London.
For now, Bortles will get at least one more start for the team that drafted him third overall out of Central Florida in 2014. Getting respect from people outside the Jags’ locker room is another matter. Bortles, who quit social media sometime after the 2016 season, doesn’t just absorb a steady stream of criticism from fans and media members. He is also clowned on semi regularly by some of the NFL’s most decorated defenders.
Last December, after a 30-24 defeat to the Jags, Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas referred to Bortles as a "subpar quarterback." A week later, Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney went a step further after his team’s 45-7 loss to Jacksonville, saying of Bortles, "He trash." In January, as the Jaguars prepared for their playoff opener against the Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey told Nashville radio station 104.5 The Zone, "As long as Bortles is back there, if the ballgame is in his hands, he’s going to choke."
On Wednesday, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins felt comfortable taunting Bortles four days before their game. In a response to the continued unemployment of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the wake of his social activism, Jenkins told reporters, "I can turn on the tape this week of our opponent and see that Colin Kaepernick deserves a job."
It’s true that the recent tape of Bortles has not been flattering: He has been responsible for eight turnovers in the Jags’ past three games, including a pair of lost fumbles against the Texans. Yet, as Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone has emphasized in recent public comments, sloppy quarterback play is hardly the team’s only issue.
An offense built around second-year running back Leonard Fournette has struggled to find its identity, as the fourth overall pick of the 2017 draft has missed all but parts of two games with lingering hamstring issues. Fournette theoretically could return to face the Eagles, but most likely will wait until a Nov. 11 game against the Indianapolis Colts, following the Jags’ bye week. Frustration over Fournette’s prolonged absence, and the uncertainty surrounding his status, spurred Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell to trade for Cleveland Browns running back Carlos Hyde last week.
The Jags’ offense has suffered a slew of other injuries, beginning with season-ending knee surgery for the team’s top receiver, Marqise Lee, before their first regular-season game. Left tackle Cam Robinson went down with a torn ACL suffered in the September victory over the Patriots. His replacement, Josh Wells, also landed on injured reserve with a groin injury, and several other offensive linemen are playing through various ailments. Tight ends Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Niles Paul are also on IR (Seferian-Jenkins, who had core muscle surgery, could return late in the season). Other than that, the Jacksonville offense is in stellar shape.
Meanwhile, the team’s once-mighty defense has started to buckle under the weight of expectations and increased pressure to carry the team. The frustration spilled over after last Sunday’s loss when, shortly after reporters entered the locker room, a loud argument involving defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus ensued, and defensive end Calais Campbell was seen restraining Ngakoue as reporters were ushered out.
Bortles, however, has remained relatively popular inside the building, partly because he is the antithesis of a diva, and partly because of his grit and unflappability in the face of adversity.
Ask a Jaguars defender to weigh in on Bortles, and he’ll almost certainly come to the quarterback’s defense:
— Safety Tashaun Gipson: "I love Blake. I’ve been here with him for three years, and he’s an even-keeled quarterback. He’s humble. When things are bad, he gets the blame. When things are good, he still kinda gets shaded — and he still gets the blame. He put up 30 on Seattle (last December) and they still said he was trash."
— Cornerback A.J. Bouye: "We see a guy who doesn’t let the media or the outside noise get to him. He comes in every day and works. A lot of people say they want to see more consistency, and he might feel the same way, but one thing about it: He’s a pro."
— Campbell: "There’s gonna be times when Blake carries us, when we have bad days. Go back to the playoffs, against the Steelers. We gave up 42 points. Blake had to deliver, and he did."
— Dareus: "I really like Blake. He’s a team player. He’s not a prima donna. He’s extremely athletic. He can make plays. He’s actually a really good quarterback. It’s what he’s missing that’s the issue right now. He’s missing some weapons. The offensive line is banged up. Our running back is injured. He really has to deal with all that. No matter what he does, people are gonna look at him like he’s no good."
If nothing else, Bortles knows how to take a hit, literally and figuratively.
"The No. 1 thing about him is his toughness," Marrone said. "You see what he does running the football, which is overlooked, and he can get you out of things with his feet. The amount of hits he’s taken, the amount of criticism he gets on a weekly basis, he just takes it and keeps going. He knows the deal: If he wins, people say nice things. If not, they kick the s— out of him."
The 6-foot-5, 236-pound Bortles often uses his strength and athletic ability to extend plays — and sometimes causes offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s stomach to drop during games.
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"He’s never gonna quit (on a play)," Hackett said of Bortles. "He’s gonna mix it up. He’d rather run over a dude … even when I wish he wouldn’t."
Said Bortles: "I get in trouble every now and then. And you’ve definitely gotta be smart. ‘Cause it’s one thing playing at UCF, (where) for the most part, I was kinda bigger than a lot of the dudes playing — whereas now I’m not even close; the guys are way bigger and faster than I am. Third down, fourth down or going into the end zone, I’m allowed to run into people, that’s kind of our loose settings on that.
"But I started playing football because I loved the contact. I played linebacker and running back until my sophomore year of high school, and then our quarterback got hurt so I had to start playing quarterback, ’cause I had played baseball and could throw. The first year I played quarterback, I wore No. 44. I was like, ‘This is just temporary. I’ll be back, don’t you worry.’ And then I kinda stayed at quarterback, though I played safety until my senior year."
For what it’s worth, Bortles’ take on the new rules interpretations that have led to a wave of controversial roughing the passer calls isn’t what you might expect.
"We talk about all this roughing the quarterback stuff," he said, "and it’s like, ‘Dude, trust me — I’m on the side of the defense.’ Like, don’t get me wrong: If you hit me and they give me a free 15-yarder, I’m not complaining. But I totally understand how hard it is for those guys to do what the league is asking them to do. It’s impossible."
It’s also impossible for him to block out the relentless Bortles-bashing that occurs on social platforms and throughout the sports media — though the 26-year-old native Floridian does a pretty commendable job. It helps, he says, that people tend to be far more polite in person than they do when they’re typing on their smartphones or computer keyboards.
"There’s been plenty of crap talked in Jacksonville," he said, smiling, "but everywhere I’ve been out in public, people have always been extremely nice — to my face, at least. Which is good: If you hate me, at least hate me when I’m not around. That’s nice."
As for deleting his Twitter account and avoiding other social-media sites, Bortles explained, "There are a couple of mottos I’ve lived my life by, and one of them is, ‘If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.’ And on social media, I was like, ‘This is getting a little heated, I’m not really liking what I’m seeing, so let’s just get off of it.’ ‘Cause eventually I’m gonna say something, and you can’t beat the internet.
"It’s a waste of space in my mind to read negative stuff about me. Or positive stuff, for that matter, too. So it was just, stay away from it, let people talk. For a while, my mom would text me stuff or send me things, and I was like, ‘Mom, stop — I’m off it ’cause I don’t want to know. I don’t need you telling me.’ "
Bortles got his bachelor’s degree in tuning out overzealous disparagement at Central Florida, where he played for George O’Leary, a notorious taskmaster who was previously the head coach at Georgia Tech.
"I was pretty fortunate to play for George O’Leary in college, so I learned at a really young age to kind of block noise out, ’cause there was a lot of yelling going on at UCF when I was there," Bortles said. "So that kind of trained me, I think, to deal with it. That was how he coached. That was his philosophy. All the coaches were encouraged to yell. If they were coaching, they were yelling.
"And it was awesome. It kind of taught you to decipher the info that’s inside of the yelling, rather than being like, I’m getting yelled at. It created thick skin, so I owe him a ton for getting me ready to handle that, as I have in the NFL. I always say I’m pretty good at not listening to people."
Another way in which O’Leary prepared Bortles for his Jacksonville experience: "Oh, I got benched weekly at UCF," Bortles recalled, laughing. "If I did something he didn’t like, I was done."
Fortunately for Bortles, O’Leary’s "benchings" tended not to be permanent; nor, thus far, have Marrone’s. In August of 2017, Marrone decided to start veteran Chad Henne in the pivotal third preseason game, relegating Bortles to second-half duty, and leading many outsiders to presume that his time with the Jags would be done following the season. However, Henne’s performance in that game against the Carolina Panthers wasn’t impressive enough to convince the coach to give him the job, and Bortles was reinstalled atop the depth chart.
Said Bortles, in the interview four days before the defeat to the Texans: "They asked me this year going into the third preseason game, ‘How are you doing?’ I said, ‘Better than last year. I haven’t been benched yet.’ "
He can’t say that anymore, and a poor performance against the Eagles could trigger another switch to Kessler. Yet the Jaguars have enough invested in Bortles — who, in the wake of a turnover-free postseason, signed a three-year, $54 million contract extension last February — to err on the side of letting him work through his latest slump. He also has a history of playing well in the Jags’ annual London game: In his past three trips across the pond, all Jacksonville victories, the team has averaged 36 points per game, and Bortles has thrown eight touchdowns against just one interception.
Even now, as he confronts his latest crisis, Bortles believes the Jaguars have championship potential — a contention that, upon being voiced publicly, will undoubtedly provoke denigration from his legions of critics. That likely won’t faze him, but he’ll surely file it away with the rest of the reproach. For as adept as the quarterback is at blocking out the noise, he sometimes allows himself the guilty pleasure of silently scoffing at the haters, often while driving home alone from TIAA Bank Field toward his house near Jacksonville Beach.
"There’s nothing better than that drive, Sunday afternoon, after winning the football game — I mean, that’s the best feeling there is," Bortles said. "That’s kind of when I go back through what happened, and there are definitely times when I … I mean, there are so many people that have doubted me and there are so many people that have talked negatively about me and about this team, and to be able to win in the fashion that we have is good, and I enjoy it.
"Obviously, we’ve gotta get back to that and gotta get back on track and rolling, but we will. And I know this: All I can do is worry about what I can control, and I’m gonna do everything I can do to help this team win football games. And once we win the Super Bowl, I’ll enjoy the s— out of that with the guys in this locker room, and that’ll be enough."
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.
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